Cambodian garment factory workers will be urged to skip work for a week in mid-March in a series of escalating non-cooperation measures over wages and conditions.
Unions representing garment industry employees in Cambodia are appealing to workers to boycott overtime from February 24 to 28, which they hope will force the government and factory owners to take their demands seriously.
The general strike will take place on March 12 when, instead of demonstrating on the streets or outside factories, workers will be urged to simply stay at home.
Eight of Cambodia’s largest non government-aligned unions agreed Wednesday on a series of civil disobedience measures designed to disrupt production in Cambodia’s largest export industry.
The unions’ strategy avoids violating the ban on public demonstrations established after last month’s unrest, when military and security forces beat and fired upon demonstrators supporting the strike, killing five and injuring dozens.
“The unions care about the life of their members, and it’s very hard for the police and soldiers [to respond] when the people simply stay at home,” said Moeun Tola, the head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center.
He said its success will depend on how many workers the unions can mobilise.
The announcement comes in the wake of the Appeals Court decision on Tuesday to refuse bail to 21 men arrested during the previous nationwide strike.
Sun Lyhov, spokesman for the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said he cannot accept the court’s decision.
“The courts in Cambodia [are] not independent,” he said.
“The court [is] under the political party” and used workers like “political equipment.”
The release of the protestors is one of seven demands sent by the unions to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) on Monday.
The others include: a $160 minimum wage for garment workers; the prosecution of state forces who killed five protesting strikers on January 3; an end to the government’s ban on demonstrations; an end to legal action against union leaders who organized the first strike in December; and the payment of worker’s salaries during the strike.
The Secretary General of GMAC, Ken Loo, warned that those who join the strike would not receive entitlements for that period, and any workers hoping for back pay were wasting their time.
“They’re never going to get that money,” he said.
Members of the Ministry of Labour committee studying the minimum wage will be invited to the public forum on March 8 at Freedom Park, the base site for the previous strike and anti-government vigil.
Opposition MP Mu Sochua believes the bargaining power of workers should not be underestimated.
“When orders cannot be delivered on time…what are you going to do? Grab the workers out of their home?” she said.
“At the end of the day, who has more power? The workers do, [because] the buyers need them, the factories need them, the country needs them.”
Loo, however, is confident the strike will not have too great an impact. During the last strike in December-January, he said, “the majority wanted to come to work, and we believe now more want to” than did before.
“If this is indeed true, then it won’t be the case that the whole industry will shut down.”
Without a change in legislation, the strike is unlikely to affect the attitude of garment manufacturers.
“We will not give in to threats, because if we give in once, it’s a never-ending story,” Loo said. “If the govt raises the minimum wage, we will comply.”